We need a broadband levy to pay for content

17 April 2013

It doesn't have to be this way

Online win: it doesn’t have to be this way

AS A Scottish journalist, I am naturally concerned about the latest redundancies at our national quality daily, The Scotsman, which fired thirty journalists last month. As a sometime contributor, I will try to be sympathetic to the paper’s publishers, Johnston Press if the reason is falling advertising revenue – down by 16% this year for print copies. But there is another answer to the challenge of declining newspaper circulation figures facing massive online and mobile/tablet based news competition.

Quality news journalism will always be a valuable commodity. But at present the Scotsman and most other papers are providing it free of charge on the internet. Who gains? The papers get some revenue from the online ads they carry (currently 6% of total revenues at Johnston), but they get no cover price, whereas this remains the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. The internet service provider (ISP) gets chargeable traffic on its servers and revenue from its broadband subscribers as they read the papers online; BT gets the line rental from every landline internet connection. Equipment manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are happy to sell tablets and laptops and phones using ads showing pages from other people’s websites and content from other providers of music, movies and games; so you could even argue that the Scotsman’s online content helps sell those highly lucrative devices. And of course readers who don’t buy the paper at a newsagent get free access to most of the paper’s content on their computers. So they gain too.
Paywalls have had patchy success. But clearly some players are making a killing out of the internet – and it doesn’t seem to be the main content providers: the news and entertainment media, bloggers, musicians, artists and writers and social networkers.
So how about a new approach?


Online news: the big winners

The biggest revenue streams online are the monthly charges we pay for internet access. The main ISPs pay absolutely zilch for the content we want to look at and listen to, and yet they are slicing off their cut of every click we make. So why don’t we make a levy on ISPs, so that for every subscriber they connect to free news, entertainment, art and social networks, a small percentage is paid into a fund to reward the people and companies which generate the free stuff that makes the internet attractive. The funds would be apportioned according to number of hits, time spent on a site, downloads made – I am no expert, but a fair formula shouldn’t be impossible to find.
Because unless we manage to stop the internet’s corrosive effect on paid-for newspapers and journalism, the more print’s days are numbered. The next era of news coverage would be one of bland online advertorials with little investigative or factual journalism. And that would diminish us all.


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